Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Saul Jay Singer

Rachel Bluwstein (aka “Rachel the Poetess”) and Leah Goldberg are two titans of modern Hebrew poetry who will achieve even greater fame when their faces appear on new notes the Bank of Israel will issue at year’s end.

Bluwstein will be featured on the new red 20-shekel note with the verso containing an excerpt from her poem “Kinneret” alongside a depiction of her beloved Sea of Galilee:

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“Over there are the hills of Golan…in splendid isolation grandfather Hermon slumbers. A cool wind blows from the peak of whiteness. Over there, on the seashore, a low-topped pine tree stands, disheveled like a mischievous infant that has slid down and splashes in the waters of Kinneret. How abundant are the flowers in the winter, bunches of blood-red anemones, the orange of the crocus. There are days when the greenery is sevenfold green and seventyfold is the blue of the sky.”

Goldberg will be shown on the new orange 100-shekel note, with the verso featuring an image of a deer along with an excerpt from her poem “White Days, ” which begins:

White, long days, like the sun’s rays in summer
Long, solitary peace on the riverfront,
Windows wide open to azure silence
Straight, tall bridges between yesterday and tomorrow

Though Bluwstein and Goldberg are not the first women to be featured on Israeli banknotes, they are the first since a 10-shekel note issued in 1985, which featured a portrait of Golda Meir, was removed from circulation in the 1990s. Meir was also featured on the 10,000-pound (“old shekel”) note, and several other women were also depicted on Israeli pound notes prior to their replacement by the “new shekel” in 1980.

Nonetheless, the Bank of Israel is now facing criticism for not featuring any Hebrew-language poets of Sephardic descent – and Sari Raz, a member of the currency selection committee, did not help things when she said was unaware of any worthy twentieth century Sephardic poets. Prime Minister Netanyahu proposed that the first future banknote feature Yehuda HaLevi, whom he characterized as “important to the Jewish heritage.”

Israelis have a broad awareness of the important role poets played in the resurrection and development of the modern Hebrew language; for example, Chaim Nachman Bialik, Shai Agnon, and Shaul Tchernichovsky all have appeared on Israeli currency.

Indeed, according to Stanley Fischer, the governor of the Bank of Israel, featuring the images of literary figures on shekel bills fosters an appreciation for their contributions to Israeli culture and society and instills in Israeli youth a greater appreciation for Hebrew literature.

Even during the renaissance of modern Hebrew poetry, virtually none of it was written by women. Rachel (1890-1931), the “founding mother” of modern Hebrew poetry, introduced new linguistic and metaphorical possibilities. She is known for her lyrical and concise style and for the revolutionary simplicity of her conversational tone, as she invented new poetic language close to the spoken language and free of the scholarly, textual culture of the cheder.

Particularly renowned for her clever and subtle shifts between biblical Hebrew and the contemporary Hebrew vernacular, her work often touches upon the hardships of a pioneer recalling memories of times spent laboring on the land. In some of her poems she expressly identifies with biblical figures, including specifically Rachel, her namesake matriarch.

The majority of her poetry, set in the pastoral countryside of her beloved Eretz Yisrael, echoes her feelings of longing and loss and love for the land – and her love for the land is evident even in her private correspondence. In many of her letters to her childhood friend Shulamit, published by the Israel State Archives for the first time in 2013, Rachel writes movingly of her beloved Kinneret and Jerusalem: “Ah! I would like to tell you, my dear, about the beauty that shines from my Sea of Galilee in the evening…. I love the Sea of Galilee endlessly.” She writes that she loves Jerusalem “with a romantic love that speaks to my heart and my intellect at the same time…”

Rachel began writing in Russian as a youth, but the majority of her work, most of it produced during the final six years of her short life, was written in Hebrew. Her first poem, Mood, appeared in the Hebrew newspaper Davar (1920), where most her poems were eventually published.

Her status as a beloved national poet was enhanced by her dedication to Zionism and the fact that, like Naomi Shemer (see my April 22, 2016 Jewish Press column “Naomi Shemer’s Passover”), many of her poems, including “Kinneret,” “Zemer Nogah,” and “Gan Na’ul,” have been set to music and become an integral part of Hebrew culture.

Rachel had significant Orthodox Jewish roots: her maternal grandfather was the rav of the Jewish communities in Riga and Kiev. Her father, Isser, was a deeply committed Jew who, when sent at an early age to serve in the Tsar’s army, carefully maintained his religious observance; her brother, Max Mandelshtam, was president of the Fifth Zionist Congress (Basle, 1901); and the family maintained a traditional Jewish lifestyle.

Though Rachel and her siblings were by no means fluent in Hebrew, they were intimately familiar with tefillah (Jewish prayer). During a trip to Eretz Yisrael (1910), Rachel became captivated by the land and, determined to remain as a Zionist pioneer, she worked the orchards at Rechovot, where she learned Hebrew from listening to the chatter of kindergarten children.

A year later she become the first student at the agricultural training farm for young women set up by Hannah Meisel at Kevuzat Kinneret, where she remained for two years before being sent to continue her studies in agronomy in Toulouse, France so that she could contribute to boosting Jewish agriculture on the moshavot and early kibbutzim.

In Toulouse, she developed an interesting link to two future Israeli presidents. First, she was the only woman and the only Jew among her fellow students until the arrival of Rachel Yanait, later the wife of Israel’s second president, Yitzchak Ben-Zvi. Second, during this time she also met and had a close relationship with Zalman Rubshov, who was the subject of many of her love poems and who later changed his name to Zalman Shazar before serving as Israel’s third president.

Rachel journeyed to France to study agronomy and drawing (1913) but, unable to return to Eretz Yisrael because of World War I, returned to Russia where she translated Hebrew poetry by Chaim Nachman Bialik and Jacob Fichman into Russian and taught Jewish refugee children from Odessa in an orphanage. It was here that she apparently contracted tuberculosis, then an incurable disease that would ultimately prove fatal (note her reference in the featured exhibit below to her “medicines”).

Returning to Eretz Yisrael on the first ship to leave Russia, she joined Kevuzat Deganya as an expert agronomist, but her illness forced her to cease engaging in physical labor and she was ultimately expelled because of her TB. She spent the rest of her life traveling and living in Tel Aviv, but the great poetess was reduced to scarcely eking out a living by providing private lessons in Hebrew and French. She finally settled in a sanatorium in Gedera, where she lived until her tragic death.

Front Page 072117 Postcards

In this January 20, 1920 correspondence (postmark is on the stamp), Rachel sends a postcard to her father in Tel Aviv depicting a reception for Herbert Samuel. The card, which the recipient notes was received on the 14th of Elul, 1920, is addressed in Hebrew, and she writes, in her native Russian:

Dear father, this photograph depicts a ceremony for the High Commissioner. I wrote in the past and requested my medicines…. I pray for you, Rachel.”

Herbert Samuel (1870 – 1963) played a prominent role leading to Britain’s pro-Zionist Balfour declaration (1917) and, after Britain conquered the territory from the Turks and was awarded the Mandate for Palestine by the League of Nations, he was appointed the first high commissioner of Palestine (1920 – 1925), thereby becoming the first Jew to rule the Land of Israel in 2,000 years.

Rachel was somewhat popular during her life but her greater success came only toward the end, and it was only after her death that she became revered as a beloved national poet. More than twenty different editions of her collected poetry and other writings have been published since her death, new editions of her work are still published every few years, and her poems are included in the mandatory curriculum in Israeli schools.

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Shown below is a letter dated November 1963, written and signed by Leah Goldberg from Paris to Avrohom Broides regarding proof readings of her work.

Please, please make certain to correct the terrible mistake that was made in the editing. There, poems A and C create the impression of another poem and . . . spoil the line (and the poetry). [A clever Hebrew play on the words “shirah” (poetry/song) vs. “shurah” (line).]

I hope the glosses will arrive on time, as they were sent to me to Paris and arrived while I was in Amsterdam. But, apparently, only yesterday.

With thanks and best blessings

Front Page 072117 Letter

Broides (1907-1979), himself a renowned Hebrew poet whose work focused on the anguish and toil of the poor, later wrote landscape poetry with a simple and lyrical line, authored many books for children, and served for over 35 years as secretary and editor for the Hebrew Writers Association.

A prolific and versatile author, literary critic, academic scholar, lecturer, and playwright, Goldberg (1911-1970) was one of Israel’s most beloved children’s writers, as an entire generation of Israelis grew up on her stories and poems. She was also a renowned translator, interpreting into Hebrew many of the great pieces of Western literature, including works originally written in German, English, and Russian, including the first Hebrew translation of War and Peace.

Her works include Be-Harei Yerushalayim (“In the Jerusalem Hills”), one of her best landscape poems, set in her beloved Jerusalem; a novel and play; and editing an anthology of Russian poetry. She published one novel, Ve’Hu Ha’Or (“And This Is the Light,” 1946), one of the first modern Hebrew novels published by a woman.

Becoming an accomplished painter in her later years, the multi-faceted Goldberg illustrated several of her own works.

Goldberg refused to write ideological verse and, unlike her contemporaries, rarely touched upon Jewish themes; only toward the end of the Holocaust did she express her feelings within a Jewish framework (Mi-Beiti ha-Yashan, “From my Old Home,” 1944). A universalist in her approach, she wrote on childhood, nature, unfulfilled love, the quest for aesthetic expression, aging, and death. In her later years her central themes were resignation to the tragedy of existence and finding solace in the poetry. All her poetry was written in the modern mode set by the school of younger poets that developed in Eretz Yisrael during the Mandate period, and she used traditional verse forms, expressing her modernism through a conversational style that disdained elaborate rhetoric.

Born in Koenigsberg, Eastern Prussia, Goldberg, though she did not grow up in a Hebrew-speaking home, began to write Hebrew verse while still a schoolgirl. Her first poem was published in 1926. (Her published works are only in Hebrew, as are all her personal notes and her diary.) She attended the universities of Kovno and Berlin and, after completing her Ph.D. in Semitic languages at Bonn University, she made aliyah in 1935 and joined the circle of modernist writers in Tel Aviv headed by Avraham Shlonsky.

She began publishing her poems in Turim, the literary forum of the group, and Shlonsky helped her compile her first volume of poetry, Tabbe’ot Ashan (“Smoke Rings,” 1935).

After a career as a schoolteacher, she joined the editorial staff of the Davar newspaper; became editor of Al HaMishmar’s literary supplement; served on the staff of Davar La-Yiladim, a popular children’s magazine; and was the literary advisor to Habimah, Israel’s national theatre. In 1952, she was invited to establish the Department of Comparative Literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and she held the department chair until her death.

Goldberg was awarded many prizes, including the Israel Prize for Literature (1970, posthumously), and her work has been published in at least 27 languages.

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